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By Jane Koropsakshare:

Cliff Gerlak: From U.S. Marine Veteran to Chemical Engineer

Clifford Gerlak

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. Clifford Gerlak, an intern in the chemistry division, is researching fundamental reactions of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and the behavior of catalysts that can produce useful chemicals.

At very different ends of the career spectrum, it may seem difficult to transition from a United States Marine to a chemical engineer, but that’s exactly Cliff Gerlak’s plan.

Working under the direction of the Chemistry Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, Gerlak is researching fundamental reactions of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and the behavior of catalysts that can produce useful chemicals. Working with his mentor, Chemist Sanjaya Senanayake, and post-doc Lili Lin, Gerlak is investigating how chemical fuels (hydrogen, alcohols) can be manufactured from CO2 and CH4. This research is an important DOE focus for the sustainable synthesis of chemicals that can be used as energy for a variety of purposes, including use in plastics, transportation fuels, and in homes.

Gerlak, who is currently working toward an engineering degree from Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) with assistance under the G.I. Bill*, first came to Brookhaven last winter through the mini-semester program that is organized by the Lab’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP). The week-long program allows students to get an introduction to the Laboratory by meeting scientists, attending lectures, and touring facilities.

“My professor at SCCC suggested I participate in the mini-semester program,” said Gerlak. “Once I came to the Lab, I was so impressed by the people I met, and the amazing science being done here that I immediately applied for the Community College Internship (CCI). I knew this was the right place for me to propel my engineering career forward.”

The mini-semester and CCI programs are sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Science under the Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists programs.

Photo of Sanjaya Senanayake, Lili Lin and Clifford Gerlak

Click on the image to download a high-resolution version. Working with his mentor, Sanjaya Senanayake (back), and post-doc Lili Lin (center), Clifford Gerlak, an intern in the chemistry division at Brookhaven Lab, is investigating how chemical fuels (hydrogen, alcohols) can be manufactured from CO2 and CH4. The sustainable synthesis of these chemicals can be used as energy for a variety of purposes, including use in plastics, transportation fuels, and in homes.

“This is a perfect example of how our educational programs are inspiring and assisting our younger generations toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Noel Blackburn, who leads the mini-semester and CCI programs for OEP. “We are also very appreciative of all of our scientists and engineers who mentor these students. They are integral to the success of the programs and certainly of the students.”

“Cliff was well trained in the Marines and by nature is a hard worker, dependable, and inquisitive. His research efforts have helped us to advance our DOE mission. I find these to be important traits for a future scientist,” said Senanayake.

In fact, those traits encouraged Senanayake and Alex Harris, Chair of the Chemistry Division, to extend Gerlak’s internship once the CCI summer program ended. Gerlak now comes to the Lab to do some hands-on science while continuing his studies. He plans to apply to Stony Brook University to obtain his B.S. in chemical engineering.

 Gerlak, who was raised in Bayshore, Long Island, served in the U.S. Marines for nine years having several deployments, including one to Afghanistan.  His keen attention to detail landed him a job as a parachute rigger. Now, when he’s not at school or working in the catalysis lab, Gerlak is happily spending time with his wife and two small daughters, hiking, or listening to music.

“I feel like this is the start of another incredible journey for me,” added Gerlak. “I am thankful to everyone who has helped me get here. I hope to pay it forward someday and share my enthusiasm by becoming a mentor myself.”

*The G.I. Bill is a Department of Veterans Affairs education benefit earned by members of active duty, selected reserve and National Guard Armed Forces and their families. The benefit is designed to help servicemembers and eligible veterans cover the costs associated with getting an education or training.

For more information on Brookhaven Lab’s educational programs visit the Office of Education website

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

2019-14312  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom